A recent study of a Coursera MOOC is really interesting in that it implemented a random assignment of student to 2 conditions – one with no teacher interaction with the students and the other with teacher and teacher assistant interaction in forums. The study is

Tomkin, J. H., & Charlevoix, D. (2014). Do professors matter?: using an a/b test to evaluate the impact of instructor involvement on MOOC student outcomes. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2566245

The study concluded that teacher presence had no significant relation to course completion, most badges awarded, intent to register in subsequent MOOCs or course satisfaction.  This is of course bad news for teacher’s unions and those convinced that a live teacher must be present in order for significant learning to occur. However, the findings is predicted by my Interaction Equivalency Theory in which I argue that if one of the three forms of student interaction (student-student, student-teacher, student content) is at a high level, the other two can be reduced or even eliminated.  Adding additional forms of interaction may increase satisfaction (though it seems not to have done so in this experiment), but it most certainly also increases costs and thus decreases accessibility.

Tomkin and Charlevoix argue “The results of this study broadly support the connected learning model, at least for these motivated, educated participants. The absence of the professor did not impact the activity of the forums – the participants did generate their own knowledge in this arena. It should be stressed that this MOOC was highly structured, so an alternative explanation is that the enhanced machine interactivity that MOOCs provide relative to textbooks, or older styles of distance learning, may be sufficient to stimulate student engagement. ” p. 75

I see this as one the few tangible outcomes of the “digital dividend” that actually results in cost savings to students.  The student-teacher interaction was morphed into student-content interaction through the digital videos. The study shows there was student-student interaction, however in no teacher interaction MOOC, this interaction was both stimulated and supported by the students themselves.

I’m discouraged by the ever increasing costs of higher education and most notably our incapacity to scale higher education to meet needs (and the capacity) of students in developing countries. I believe we have a moral obligation to help all students become proficient life-long learners who are capable of learning with or without active teacher presence – despite the potential impact on our own employment.